Cairns players know just how important last week’s sweep of Perth and Townsville was to its championship journey. Atoning for the Perth embarrassment in round eight, and thinning the 18-point series differential against the defending champions, was step one of the jockeying for positions game. Calling for the brooms in the Reptile Rumble was step two.
“It was just crucial to get a series split [against Perth], and that’s a big focus for us moving forward, with the next two Perth games on the twenty-fourth of January and fifth of February,” said Alex Loughton. “Particularly to get all four wins against Townsville in the Reptile Rumble. I think that was a feather in the cap, but that’s just part of the journey so far.”
For perhaps the casual fans and media folk, Cairns has walked an unexpected journey this season. They’re 15-6 and only trail the league leading Breakers by one game in the loss column. And yet, despite being entrenched in the top-four and boasting the league’s most finely balanced point guard, skepticism lingers in the blogosphere about their championship credentials.
That cynicism may stem from our obsession with playing the “What They Could Be” game with Melbourne and Adelaide, Perth’s Defending Champs title and New Zealand’s firepower.
United and 36ers have been vehicles of frustration throughout the season. Both teams boast Olympians, professional scorers and impressive depth at almost every position. Indeed, Chris Anstey’s resignation, and major off-and-in-season acquisitions contributed to Melbourne and Adelaide’s underwhelming starts. But we’re deep into the season, and sometimes it’s best to cease the “what if” game, and just concede that perhaps, this is just who these teams really are.
Records don’t usually lie, even if Cairns concede a certain level of fear towards them.
“You almost fear them [Melbourne and Adelaide] just because of what they could be,” Cameron Tragardh told Grizz & Tizz on the Downtown podcast this week. “They could go to levels that the league hasn’t seen. Those two teams are danger teams you want to keep down.”
The Taipans are a remarkably selfless team driven by Coach Aaron Fearne, who loves three things in life: no excuses, defense and whippy ball movement. The natural comparison here is that Fearne is building a sort of Spurs-Lite ball club. After all, it’s not unusual to hear Fearne reference the Spurs in film sessions to ram home his point.
“I think Coach Fearne would prefer being the Spurs of the NBL,” shared Loughton. “He is always looking up to their Coach Gregg Popovich, and saying, ‘look at that ball movement!’ They’re obviously not playing as well this year, but the point is that he likes that it’s never one guy what can wear a team down.”Although, in many ways, Cairns is the Atlanta Hawks of the NBL this season – knocking off rivals at a serial rate while observers conjure new reasons to not trust them in the playoffs.
Like the Hawks, the Taipans enjoy a bunch of great chemistry guys who are happy to move the ball.
“We’ve got a couple of young imports who have brought into what we’re doing, which helps big time,” said Tragardh. “Then there’s our veteran frontline and the young guys who really want to be here and want to push for minutes, so it’s a good mix.”
And yes, their coach also preaches the Spursean-way.
There’s something to be said for just lacing a roster with good reliable players rather than summoning a top-heavy team. Every Taipan is a scoring threat on the floor, particularly when the offense is performing a ballet of movement.
Don’t get me wrong: Scottie Wilbekin is a star, but it’s a stable core group of guys (Loughton, Cameron Gliddon, Stephen Weigh and Tragardh) that have provided the foundation to their regular season success.
“The beauty of having a good core is that you can make small changes and get big results,” added Loughton. “We got the core of all the little things locked away”
Cairns is a treat to watch for a number of reasons – the fast passing, Loughton’s pick-and-pop game, the uniforms, Fearne’s post-game pressers and Wilbekin’s speed, friskiness and shepherd’s pie haircut.
“When you’re 21 years old, you make your own cool,” Tragardh remarked on WilBuckets’ poodle-top.
Indeed, winning builds culture and renders any work environment a pleasant destination. Even still, the Taipans’ chemistry isn’t just an overnight product of winning. It was born from roster continuity and veterans, like Loughton and Tragardh, trusting Fearne’s message over an extended period of time.
“In Fearney’s world, and it’s different to everyone else’s world, it’s black and white. You either got the job done or you didn’t,” said Loughton. “He probably won’t mention it if the job was done well (laughs), as it’s just something he expects you to do.
“Look, he’s a loveable old bear, but we certainly understand him a lot more, well I certainly understand him a lot more, then four years ago.”
“It has been a work-in-progress relationship,” added Tragardh. “I’ve learnt how to find my spots in the system, and Fearney has taught me to calm down and not be so anxious, and if you’re not getting shots up it’ll come, and just pick your spots. Finally I’ve exhaled and taken a big breath, and realised I can contribute in other ways then just scoring.”
Ignore career-scoring averages: Tragardh and Loughton are arguably enjoying their most complete seasons yet.The Taipans know that they can’t overwhelm teams with individual talent. Nobody averages more than 14 points, and Wilbekin, Cairns’ leading scorer, sits 14th in the league for points per game. Instead, Cairns is a sum far greater than its parts. This reality was most evident during a three-game losing streak that followed its blistering 6-0 start.
“I actually think the ball stopped moving. We lost those three games in a row and we started to play ‘not to lose’,” reflected Tragardh. “We were 6-0, and everyone was telling us how great we are, and our first home loss to the Breakers, we were the most anxious 6-0 team ever with the least amount of confidence. The ball stopped and we were all anxious to make plays.”
Teams naturally altered their defensive schemes against Cairns. Defenders sunk to the free-throw line anytime Wilbekin dabbled with the ball around picks, daring him to shoot at the expense of setting the table for others. Basketball is a game of adjustments. If anything, the losing streak only reinforced the importance of whipping the ball around and brushing off the allure of iso-ball.
“For us, we have a lot of spare parts on our team. Scottie is the star, and you got to feed those spare parts to win, and if the ball isn’t moving, we’re not going to win many games,” added Tragardh.
The Taipans’ Atlanta-Hawkish offense has come to define them this season, but they’ve also quietly forged one of the league’s best defenses, allowing only 77.76 points per game. They are a legitimate two-way force.
Surrendering only 76 and 73 points against Townsville and Perth last week is indicative of a scary trend: They can beat you in more than one way. They can grind out an ugly affair, out-execute late in games or neuter an opponent’s scoring blast.
Really, New Zealand is the Taipans’ closest rival in terms of two-way excellence. The Breakers are athletic and smart; they have that same extra gear which James Ennis and the Wildcats enjoyed last season.
Sure, a three-game playoff series evokes a whiff of unpredictability, but Perth reminded us last year that defense is a determining factor in championship stakes. And defense has always been a Fearne non-negotiable.
“Our defense has carried us through, and it’s always been fairly strong. That’s Coach Fearne. He does have a penchant for having quality defensive teams,” said Loughton.
There are still some big games ahead that will decide the all-important home court advantage. You never know what might happen, particularly in an eight-team league. However, what can no longer be disputed are the Taipans’ very serious championship credentials.
Their rise might have stunned most fan bases, but as Loughton concludes, “I think within each team’s inner sanctum, they know they’re going to be in for a tough game.”
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